There once was an Ogre who set out on a quest –to keep his little world safe. He found much more than he set out to find, with the help of a donkey who could talk. Instead of keeping his life the same, he was transformed, as was his lady, but maybe not the ways we expected! I love Shrek, it celebrates childhood rhymes, and journeys, and happy endings! But that Donkey: Is it animal or human? Donkey and Shrek and Fiona and the Dragon: Is it love or hate? Shrek’s world: Is it fantasy or reality?
Sanity means, it part, being able to tell the differences between things: L’havdil: we must separate. When a baby looks at the world, all is one collage of color and light, of line. Then an object moves, and all its colors with it – aha!– that is a separate object, we learn. But in one-ness, in connections, in ambiguities is also a truth.We know that, as Adonai Echad (God is One), therefore all is one.
I have always seen the Biblical tale of Bilaam and his talking she-ass as poetic comedy all leading up to the beautiful blessing: Mah Tovu – how full of goodness are your tents of Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel. The renowned seer and prophet/speaker who can neither see the messenger with the flaming sword, nor speak, as his donkey does, saving his life. Rather than speaking, Bilaam acts in violence, beating his ass three times. (as he will bless Israel three times). When Bilaam opens his mouth to curse, he will bless Israel/Jacob instead.
But it is this emphasis on ambiguity, being both a thing and its opposite that I’m able to see this time ‘round reading about Bilaam
1. Who is the prophet, who is the beast? Perhaps we are wisest are we then listening to the instinctive parts of us. Who are we at our core? Animal and spirit and emotion all rolled up into one. We fight against our inner nature often, depriving ourselves of its wisdom. As we “civilize” chidren do we sometimes subdue their playfulness, and grow up unable to play? I know we sometimes put weapons in the hands of teens, and teach them hate and fear. Similarly we beat down the Natural world with an agenda to subdue. We say we are superior to nature, when the reality is we have no existence apart from her at all. We beat her as Bilaam beats his ass. There is powerful force blocking his way that only she can see. And only when she speaks are his eyes open
2. Who is the Israelite and who the foreigner/ enemy. Bilaam is a foreigner, hired by the Moabite King, and yet he hears the wisdom of Israel’s God, and blesses them. He becomes the pathway for their survival. The Moablites are called our enemy. As the parashah finishes, they are seducing the Israelite men, and a zealot, Pinchas will slay a couple engaging in sex at the opening of the Mishkan. Yet Moses’ wife is daughter of a Midianite (Midianites and Moabites are interchanged) and Ruth, the Moabite is great grandmother of the great king David.
3. How can the messenger be both an angel and a Satan/ an adversary? Yes the messenger in Bilaam’s way is a “satan”, an adversary. Both an angel and a Satan, at the same time? Can the adversaries in our live be our saviors? The tough customer, or boss? The rebellious teen? The sports adversary that hones us to be our best certainly is. Meet and be open to the adversary with sword drawn.
4. How can we be both Israel and Jacob? Israel struggles with Angels and prevails, gaining a new name. Jacob is a heel. The names symbolize male and female aspects of ourselves as well. Just as the first earthling in genesis was both male and female.
5. How can we set out for evil/ for cursing, and it be for blessing? I know the reverse well: we attempt to do some good, and it ends up hurting someone by accident. This is much better. Hired by kings to curse, only what is divinely put in Bilaam’s mouth is allowed to come out: of course that will be blessings, from the Source is blessing! If we are open, perhaps the same can happen with our lives.
6. Shacharit, comes from the word shachor: black, yet it means dawn. You know: it’s alway blackest before…The blessing: Mah Tovu, which opens morning services comes from this passage – what a cool coincidence: the transformational blessing at dawn. The time of day which turns darkness into light. As Bilaam turns darkness to light.
Israel this week is in darkness as she mourns the loss of three children. Seeking vengence, settler mobs kill a fifteen year old Arab boy. We struggle with demons and angels. We cannot see the face of the divine in our adversaries nor can they in our face. I prefer the full vision of ambiguity. To send condolences to all four grieving families click here. I pray somehow that this curse of senseless violence can find some happier ending. I suspect, though, that it will take ambiguous vision to really see “the other”.
Lesson from the Mah tovu: what is NOT ambiguous is goodness. In the Mah tovu, what is good is our tents, our dwellings, not our impressive army or beautiful Mishkan. Perhaps there were no homeless, perhaps the boundaries between the tribes were soft, perhaps the love from within the tents shone through. It’s the goodness that transcends the ambivalence of the new day dawning.